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GOLDMINE - March 13, 1998
Robert Pollard (a.ka. Guided By Voices) stays true to his muse
By Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen
Thanks to Jim Noone
Guided By Voices is the kind of band that restores your faith in rock music. In a time when critics, fans and artists alike have begun to question whether or not the form has any life in its tired old bones, Guided By Voices crank out inspired, hard-rockin' tunes with the Beatles' melodic songcraft, the early Who's reckless abandon, and Bruce Springsteen's zealous belief in the power of rock 'n' roll to deliver us from the daily grind.
Despite a revolving cast of nineteen other members in the band's fourteen-year history, Robert Pollard is Guided By Voices. Pollard is an anomaly among his indy and alternative rock peers. For starters, he turned 40 in October of this year. But more important than the decade or so he's got on the bands with whom GBV competes for record-store shelf space is Pollard's old-fashioned faith in the power of the music as a transcendent force, a faith that's absent from almost every-one else in today's rock world. It's that unfashionable faith-coupled with the fact that Pollard can cram more ingenious hooks and killer lyrics into two minutes than most songwriters scrounge up on a whole album-that gives Guided By Voices its power.
While Pollard's songs are usually underscored by an inescapable sense of melancholy, their sound is always ultimately joyful, infused with the same belief in the music's ability to heal that Pollard's hero Pete Townshend once spoke of. "Rock and roll won't get rid of your problems, Townshend said. "But it will let you dance all over them." So while the Smashing Pumpkins complain about being a rat in a cage, Seven Mary Three worry about how cumbersome they've become and lo-fi heroes like Sebadoh just plain sound suicidal, Pollard merely opines, "shit, yeah, it's cool."
Pollard's lyrics are steeped in metaphor and fable, filled with aliens, witches and more otherwordly figures than Syd Barrett ever dreamed up ("an alternative world", he calls it), but he's not some acid casualty or armchair hippie philosopher. He's the definition of a regular guy, a Bud-drinking father of two teenagers who peppers his speech with "dude, "man" and "like". If you didn't know who he was, you'd expect him to talk more about Chevy smallblocks than krautrocker Amon Duul or obscure psychedelic crooner Scott Walker. But music is his passion, and it's been his life's organizing principle since he was a kid growing up in suburban Dayton, Ohio.
Pollard, grew up an athlete, a self-described "big jock" who played baseball, basketball and football at Northridge High. After witnessing his pitching prowess at an early age, Pollard's father had aspirations of Robert becoming a major leaguer; Pollard himself entertained becoming a professional basketball player. And if his dad was a little disappointed when he started spending more time listening to records than practicing his curve ball, well, it was kind of his own fault.
"When I was 11 or 12, my dad told us he was going to join the Columbia House record club where you get 12 records for a penny so he said "You can start a record collection' and he let me choose the albums," Pollard recalls. Even earlier than that, Pollard had been blown away by The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and the die was pretty much cast.
"I was maybe 6 or 7, and saw that and freaked out that there were bands like that, 'he says. "It was the first rock thing I saw. Before that, it was pretty easy-going stuff that I heard. I went, 'Wow, man, this is good,' and I started practicing in the mirror to be like a Beatle, and I got some ambition that maybe someday I'll do it. I lost that pretty rapidly when I found I had no musical talent, but that's the thing that inspired me and made me start writing songs. I started writing my own 'Beatles songs,' because I couldn't get enough Beatles. Plus, the thought of four long-haired guys being chased by girls was pretty appealing to me, you know?"
After the Beatles, it was more Merseybeat for Pollard, along with "some American stuff like Paul Revere and the Raiders and Herman's Hermits. 1 was pretty much into bubblegum, all the sugary stuff." When his dad made him the record club offer, Pollard recalls, most of the albums listed in the catalog were foreign to him.
"So I based my decisions on the names of the band and the covers, so I got like Moby Grape and Ten Years After and stuff like that. I really didn't know what it was, but I found out that bands with names like that were pretty much the best bands."
Pollard says his dad regretted the day he handed over the catalog, because "I would pretty much spend every penny on records".
He still does, though he's slowed down a bit. "I've got maybe 3,000 albums and maybe another 1,000 45s", he says. "It's all vinyl; I've got maybe 50 CD's. If I can't get it on vinyl, a lot of times I just don't get it. I just found (Lou Reed's) 'Metal Machine Music' the other day. Of course, I won't listen to it, but I like that I found it. I've gotten to the point where I go down my record collection and I'm so overwhelmed I can't play anything. I heard that Jeff Connely of the Lyres keeps 500 records and that's it. Everytime he buys a new one and puts it in, he's got to take one out. I think that's a good idea."
Finding good music in Dayton in the late 1960s and early 1970s wasn't an easy task. "There really are no good record stores, so I'd go to Columbus or Cincinnati and dig for stuff that nobody was listening to," he says. "I wanted music that was mine. That's pretty much why I listened to Genesis later on, because nobody else was. It was a world of my own." He says he loved "prog rock" because no one else cared about it and because it was "some crazy-ass shit, the extension of the psychedelic music of the '60s. I loved Genesis and VanDer Graaf Generator and Yes and Emerson Lake and Palmer."
Emerson Lake and Palmer? This, from one of the patrons saints of indie rock?
"I totally understand why the punks rebelled against it, and for what reason, because you had to be really, really good to be in a band like that," he laughs. "Punk broke that down and sai nobody could play, which I liked and really appreciated, but at the time I loved my prog rock."
Besides prog rock, Pollard's playlist icluded heavy doses of T Rex, David Bowie, Blue Oyster Cult and Thin Lizzy; nothing much outside the mainstream.
"I wasn't even aware of some of the cooler stuff like Big Star," he says. "I didn't even know they existed". By the late 1970s Pollard was playing covers - "a lot of Cheap Trick" as well as the aforementioned glam and hard rockers - in a Dayton band called Anacrusis. It was there that he started playing with bassist Mitch Mitchell, who had been with the local outfil Blue Mist since 1969. Both left Anacrusis when the band's leader kicked Mitchell out and Pollard decided he didn't want to be in a band without him. From there, Mitchell and Pollard played in a variety of short-lived Dayton bands - Acid Ranch, Mailbox 86, Coyote Call and a handful of others.
Not that they made any money at it. In the early 1970s, Pollard attended Dayton's Wright State University, got married to his high school sweetheart, and became a fourth grade teacher, a career choice motivated by his desire to have time to work on his music as by an altruistic desire to educate America's youth. " I thought about what I wanted to do, and I wanted to work with kids." he says. "Plus I got summers off, man".
He taught full time for fourteen years, all the while playing in various bands. By 1983, Pollard and Mitchell had formed Guided By Voices ( a name that Pollard said refers to the fact that he's guided by the voices of rock history in his head) and with Ed "Captain Bizarre" Dwyer on guitar. By 1986, they were joined by drummer Kevin Fenell, who had played with Mitchell in the copyright-infringing Victoria's Secret. The following year, guitarist Tobin Sprout signed on, along with Pollard's "on-call" brother Jim, and the core Guided By Voices lineup was set. While the previous bands had been cover outfits who played out but rarely recorded, Guided By Voices (joined by a revolving cast of characters so big you actually need Pollard's two page "GBV Family Tree" to keep track of the players) started spending more time writing and recording than they did gigging.
Despite his early fears that he didn't have any musical talent, all those years of sitting in his room listening to everything he could get his hands on began to pay off. Pollard became a prolific song writer, with a "more is better" approach that leaves him today with more than 5,000 songs on cassette tapes in suitcases. The band started recording Pollard's material, as well as a few of Sprout's tunes, with the emphasis not on the sound but just on getting the songs on tape. They started recording in local studios but found out that they had more luck getting the sound they wanted if they just did it themselves. Making the best of the meager equipment they had - Sprout's four-track, a Radio Shack microphone, and Pollard's basement for a studio - they financed their first six records themselves, pressing fewer than 1,000 copies of each. But their aspirations were to be big time rock 'n' rollers.
"My goal was always to be in a rock band as big sounding as could be," Pollard says. " It was never like 'I wanna be in a lo-fi or indie rock band'. We tried studios and never got the sound that we wanted, the sound that we heard in our heads. We came the closest when we did it on four track. We also did it out of necessity, because we didn't have the money (for the studio) for all the songs we were writing.
Beginning with the Forever Since Breakfast EP in 1986 and continuing through 1992's Propeller, Guided By Voices released a string of albums packed with dozens of short songs that reveal a band with tremendous reach that still exceeded their grasp. That GBV sound was bright, jangly and decidedly lo-fi. As they grew as players and producers, they turned the four-track into an integral part of their recording process. Unlike other bands who spearheaded the lo-fi movement in the early 1990s (Sebadoh, Dinosaur Jr., Pavement) GBV managed to get from their four track recordings a sound that not only aspired to something bigger but often enough realized it. Despite a strong local following the band wasn't going anywhere, members were coming and going, and Pollard even went so far as to break up Guided By Voices in 1992.
Not surprisingly, Pollard couldn't give up rock 'n' roll, and the band was back playing and recording the following year, after Cleveland's Scat Records head Robert Griffin had heard Propeller and pushed Pollard to get back behind the mic. By this time, lo-fi bands were all the rage on college radio stations, and Guided By Voices' appearance at the 1993 New Music Seminar in New York City begat an indie-rock buzz that Vampire on Titus and a subsequent tour of the United States (the first time the band had played much outside of Dayton at all) kept going until the release of Bee Thousand in 1994. Bee Thousand is a remarkable album, with songs that evoke everyone from the Beatles and Who to Pink Floyd and a dozen one-hit
wonders that bubble tip from the subconscious of every mid-'60s pop fan. The album was rough sounding, to be sure, but that only added to its charm; listening to it for the first time was like discovering some long-buried relic of days gone by. Pollard even managed to make his faux-British accent sound utterly natural, and the fact that the band so obviously loved what they were doing made it clear that Guided By Voices was no mere retro act.
By that time, Guided By Voices had earned the ear of the folks at Matador Records, who distributed Bee Thousand and helped cement the band's reputation as the saviors of indie-rock. It's a reputation Pollard's not entirely comfortable with.
"There's part of the indie rock aesthetic that says, you know, we're cool and we just stand there, we're too cool to even get emotional about it," he says. "I don't want to hear moping, I want to hear something, and I wanna feel something from the fool, you know? We go to shows and people are going crazy They miss that; the kids still want to see people getting up there with some emotion. We're not afraid of that, you know? We're not embarrassed by that. We proclaim that that's what we're all about."
With Guided Bv Voices' newfound success, Pollard finally got up the nerve (and the bank account balance) to quit his teaching job after Bee Thousand. Pollard had been taking Fridays off to tour, and everyone at school-including his principal-knew that his true passion lay outside the classroom.
"I had come to school a couple of times when I was drunk because I was out all night recording," he told an interviewer from Magnet, "but I always got along with everybody"
In fact, the mother of one of his students even told him at a parent-teacher conference that she admired what he was doing because it set a good example for her child about following your dreams. Leaving teaching wasn't easy, though, and not only because it meant giving up a steady income.
"When I decided not to teach anymore, I thought 'I'm gonna lose my connection to the kids.' But that's not the case at all. It's like I have more kids now, in the audience."
"Kids are wise, man," he continues. "They recognize good music and good poetry, and they have this wisdom in their youth that you lose when you get older and you become jaded. I'm glad kids like our music; if they didn't, I don't think I could keep on doing it,
In 1995, Guided By Voices recorded and released Alien Lanes, an album that along with a headlining showcase at the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas, only cemented their reputation with critics and fans. Alien Lanes was a bit more refined than Bee Thousand, sometimes veering from lo-fi to reverb-laden sheen in the course of a single song. Pollard found a stronger, lower vocal range for an effect that, combined with tougher songs like "Motor Away" gave the band a more mature sound, although Sprout's vocals served as an impish counterpoint to Pollard's man-child persona. Save for "Cigarette Tricks," the sing songish "My Valuable Hunting Knife" and a smattering of others, fewer songs sounded like half-baked ditties than on the hand's previous outings. The endearing tape hiss and amplifier buzz that ran through those earlier albums was mostly gone, and Guided By Voices clearly were more interested in making a great album than they were in just putting out an interesting collection of songs and noises.
Alien Lanes was also the last album Guided Bv Voices recorded on the four-track. Not only did they begin recording 1996's Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, in Dayton's Cro-Magnon Studio, but they also started the sessions with an outside producer, notorious indie iconoclast Steve Albini. Albini, who had produced albums for the Pixies, Jesus Lizard and Nirvana, had contacted Matador and expressed his interest in working with the band. At the same time, Pollard had been talking to former Pixies' bassist and Breeder Kim Deal about working on the record. So Deal and Pollard sat down and determined which songs she'd produce and which songs the band would work on with Albini. Not surprisingly the band began working on the harder-edged material with Albini, but ultimately decided that the combination of the songs and Albini's big-studio noise didn't match the sound Pollard heard in his head. After sitting down with Albini and asking him if he'd mind if they re-recorded some of the vocals, the band redid all the songs they had done with him, recording most of them in one or two takes.
When the album was nearly done, Pollard hit a songwriting groove and came up with a half-dozen tracks he wanted to add to the project. The band went into Easley Studio in Memphis with Deal and laid down those tracks in time to release the album in April of 1996. Under the Bushes, Under the Stars may have been recorded in the studio, but it's far rawer-sounding than its predecessor. Beginning with the distorted rush of "Man Called Aerodynamics," the album sports a fatter, richer guitar sound than the band had gotten before, and the few slower numbers- "To Remake the Young Flyer," "Bright Paper Werewolves," and the pensive, acoustic "Acorns and Orioles"-were prettier than anything Pollard had ever written. Despite upbeat, anthemic numbers like "Ghosts of a Different Dream," Pollard seemed more melancholy this time around. Ultimately he wants Guided By Voices to make an uplifting, inspiring sound, but he sees acknowledging sadness as part of that process.
"Life is great, but it's not as good as people think it is, you know? I depressed, and a lot of the time when I get depressed I write really good music," Pollard says. "I get depressed with the state of the world, with what my kids have to grow up into. It inspires me to write some melancholy songs, and I feel good then. It's the perfect release. Without that release. as a songwriter, I think I'd be in a mental institution."
The songwriting spurt that produced the extra songs on Under the Bushes, Under the Stars wasn't all that unusual for Pollard, who has recorded 327 songs in addition to the thousands he just keeps on cassette tapes "Sometimes I just feel really inspired to write, and when I do, I write a lot of them," he says. "Some people think I sit down and write, like, 10 or 15 songs a day, but that's not true. Maybe three or four time a year I get inspired and I just write and write. I make sure I write to the point of exhaustion and get out all the ideas I can. It's something I've been doing since I was a kid, and it comes really easy.
Despite the fact that Under the Bushes, Under the Stars had much of the same level of critical and commercial success as Alien Lanes, the core Guided By Voices lineup began growing apart in the year after its release. Pollard and Sprout both put out solo albums, and when the time came to record the next Guided By Voices project, Pollard began looking for other musicians. Even though Mitchell, Sprout and Fennell all appear on 1997's Mag Earwhig!, most of the album was recorded with members of Cleveland's Cobra Verde and Gem, who went on to form the current version of Guided By Voices. Contrary to what the indie rock rumor mill would have us believe, Pollard says he did not fire Mitchell, Sprout or Fennell.
"I would not have forced any of them to leave the band," Pollard says." One person was having some really difficult problems with his life and needed to straighten them out, and the other two guys wanted to do something pretty much on their own. It wasn't a bitter departure, and it opened the door for me to work with these guys who I'd wanted to work with for three or four years."
Rather than viewing Guided By Voices' revolving door lineup as a hindrance, Pollard thinks it's one of the things that helps keep him interested in making music. Quoting one of his own songs, he says, "It's like 'I'm the vampire on Titus, and the vampire needs new blood.' It's always good to work with other people and do something different. With Guided By Voices, it's hard for me to keep a band. People choose to leave, not because, they're not happy but because they don't see it as something that can sustain their lives for a long period of time."
Pollard also thinks the last lineup had gone as far as they could. "We'd kind of painted ourselves into a corner and there was nowhere else to go. Of the new lineup, he says, "if there are some people who are disappointed with it, well, I'm sure that's going to happen. But it's a different direction. I feel like we're starting all over again."
The Cobra-Verde-based lineup consisted of Pollard, guitarists Doug Gillard and John Petkovic, bassist Don Depew and drummer Dave Swanson. While they might lack some of the old lineup's reckless abandon, they more than make up for it with the fact that, well, they can play their instruments a whole lot better. Mag Earwhig! features some of the first guitar solos ever on a Guided By Voices album, and while nobody's going to mistake Gillard for Vernon Reid, his lead lines tastefully expand on Pollard's melodies. There are even a few tracks that sound like they could be radio hits. "I Am a Tree" and "Bulldog Skin," Who-like anthems with crisp, tight playing and great vocals from Pollard, are the two mentioned most often. While Gillard actually wrote "Tree" in 1994 and recorded it with Gem, the track only saw the light of day on a magazine promo disc. Pollard calls it the song he saved, and Matador has been trying to work it to radio stations. But Pollard sees the real potential in "Jane of the Waking Universe," a song he says "probably needs to be re-recorded, but to me that's a hit."
Indeed, Pollard is spending more time these days developing his songs, and he's even willing to spend more than a couple takes in the studio on each one. "In the past, almost everything we've put on a record that is single potential we've had to re-record, or shorten it, or make it longer, or take out the hiss," he says. "I'm just getting tired of doing that, so I figure maybe I should just record them the right way to begin with. If I need to add a bridge or stretch it out to make it two and half minutes long, I'll do that."
In addition to bringing a wider musical vocabulary to the recording process, Cobra Verde stepped in admirably as Pollard's new live outfit. The band did a couple of short tours through the midwest and west earlier this summer, and sounded tighter and better than the old lineup ever did. And they did it with almost no rehearsal time.
"Those guys learn fast, man," Pollard says, a touch of amazement in his voice for players who actually write down chord changes and practice them on their own. "We only practiced together four times before we started touring. I live like four hours away so it's hard to get up there. But it wasn't hard for them to learn the songs." The band knows about 40 Guided By Voices songs, including the ones on the new album. Pollard thought that was pretty good until someone pointed out the 287 other songs Guided By Voices have recorded: "I thought, shit, man, that's only 1/8 of our repertoire."
Pollard doesn't see his songwriting pace slowing any time soon. He says he never tries to force songwriting, so he never gets writer's block. "I know there's going to come a moment when I really feel like writing and it's going to happen," he says. "I see a lot of people and feel kind of sorry for them. There are some people in bands today that struggle so hard on the songwriting, and I think it's because they press and they worry about it and take too long on the song. They should just write as many as they can. If you write a hundred songs, twenty of them are going to be good. If you work on them for two months and they're not that good, that's when the panic sets in.
Of course, not all songwriters have Pollard's gift with language. Pollard's lyrics are usually metaphors set in his "alternative world," populated with all sorts of odd creatures and people.
"I've never found direct lyric writing very interesting. As a kid, and as a teenager listening to music, I always thought the out-there lyrics, the more poetic and fanciful, was better. Marc Bolan and David Bowie and John Lennon and Wire and stuff like that," he says. "It's more interesting to try an figure out what something means than to just have it shoved in your face. It's not a conscious effort on my part to write these really strange lyrics. It's just because that's the kind of stuff I loved as a kid growing up in school. There's a lot of crazy imagery and stuff repeated, but I didn't really mean to create this weird-ass alternative world."
And Pollards not particularly concerned about what people think his lyrics mean. "Music should be emotional," he says again and again. "The lyrics aren't really important if you evoke some sort of emotion and it makes you feel good. I think some people stress too much importance on the lyrics. I don't think they're important. I write lyrics for how they sound, for the color, for the way they look on paper."
But Pollard's "emotions first" aesthetic means his songs remain remarkably grounded and almost never descend into hippie pseudo-poetry.
Despite their lo-fi reputation and emphasis on feel over technique, Pollard is a perfectionist when it comes to the ways Guided By Voices presents itself to the world.
"When you're in a band and making albums, you gotta pay attention to everything about the record," he says. "The lyrics should be interesting, the titles should be interesting; in fact, I start with the titles. I did an interview and read off like 50 titles I'd come up with, and they printed them. When I read the article, it just inspired me to write 'em all, and like 19 of them are really good.
"But when you make a record you need to pay attention to the sequencing, the packaging, the cover, all that stuff," he says, echoing the things that drew him to bands when he was a teenager. "I don't think a lot of bands have a hand in that these days. The record companies pretty much persuade them or do it for them: 'Here's what should be on the record, and here's what it should look like. Now give us a hit and we'll do the rest'."
Pollard has never made any bones about the fact that he wants to make big music, music with ambition and scope just like the Beatles and the Who did. In fact, while he seems to find the thought of the Who's terrific live incarnation of Quadrophenia a little ridiculous, he admires the fact that it's "overblown and crazy" And even if he doesn't ever see Guided By Voices getting to that level of popularity with the dangers of self-parody it brings, he's happy they've progressed to the level they're at now.
"Things are going better for us, but it's really a slow evolution for Guided By Voices," he says. "Mag Earwhig! is our tenth album, and things have continually gotten better, and I think that's the reason we've been around for so long. I don't want to jump into it all at one time, man, but we're getting to the point where we're making proper, big-sounding records that can sit on the shelves with some of my favorites from the past, the Who records and Kinks records. I don't know why it's tough for us to get played on the radio. I think it has something to do with the fact that we're older and not as glamorous as, I don't know, Green Day and shit."
The subject of Garbage-three regular guys in their forties who, after years of writing great music with little recognition, hooked up with a sexy female singer and took off to the top of the charts sparks laughter.
"That's really the fashion of the day get three or four gnomes behind some really hot chick and you have a band. You think we need a chick in the band?" Then he gets dead serious. "It ain't gonna happen, man."
Despite the big music he aspires to make, he's not even sure he's interested in the band becoming any more popular than it is right now.
"It's already gotten out of control, man," he says. "The legions of Guided By Voices fans continue to grow, and there's some fanatical kids out there, but it's actually kind of stressful that your label is behind you to push you to the next level. The way I work it is, if it happens, it happens. It's something that I don't even want to think about, because, hell, I'm stressed out the way it is on the level that we're at.
"I asked someone the other day what level they thought we were at, if we sell more records than the dB's or the Soft Boys, both bands I really' like, and they said 'yeah.' Then I said, 'Well, what about the Replacements,' and they said, yeah, we're right about where the Replacements were. To me, to be on that level is beyond anything I ever expected."
When reminded that it's that level of success that has broken a lot of bands in the past, including Husker Du and the Replacements, he ponders what he calls the "suck level"
"I've always wondered as a record buyer why bands start to suck, and I think it's because they get pushed to that level and now they're having to do all this other stuff, stay out on the road all the time and do way more. They don't have the time to be inspired."
Pollard sounds as inspired as ever, with the same wide-eyed joy for music making he's always had. At Matador's urging, though, he's going to put out fewer singles and stop cooperating with bootleggers.
"I don't give a shit if people come to our shows and record, especially if it's just a tape and they're just trading cassettes. But people, our label and others, just aren't into the bootleg thing," he says, sounding a bit disappointed. "I knew people who put out bootlegs, and I didn't have anything to do with it, but I was like, 'Yeah, go ahead, man.' Matador asked us if we'd quit doing that, and slow down on the side projects, and I agreed. I think there's just a little too much Guided By Voices out there. It can be overwhelming." he laughs. "So I'm gonna slow down so people can catch up"
That hardly seems likely he's already written all the songs for the next Guided By Voices project, which will be recorded without most of Cobra Verde.
In typically unpredictable fashion, Pollard told a reporter from Addicted to Noise in October of 1997 that he would be working with new musicians. The story was the first the band had heard of it, though, and they quit in mid-tour. Pollard was able to get Gillard to stick around for the next album, which is set to begin recording in February of 1998. He also recruited bassist Greg Demos, who played with GBV in the early 1990s, and drummer Jim McPherson, best know for his work with the Breeders.
The actors might change, but the play stays the same. "I wrote all the songs in one day that's what makes it so good," Pollard says with all the fervor of a man who preaches in the church of rock and roll. "The next album's gonna kick your ass, man."